Midnight egg amendment in 2012 farm bill escalates animal rights fight

Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) attempt to stop California laws that regulate egg-laying hens and foie gras has escalated an animal-rights battle.

King, in a midnight vote, got an amendment attached to the 2012 farm bill aimed at stopping a California law banning the sale of eggs harvested from hens living in tiny cages where they cannot spread their wings. It also stops another law from banning the sale of foie gras made using forced feeding.

The lawmaker’s move infuriated animal-rights activists because it would hurt their attempts to secure better living conditions for the animals.

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The California legislature also applied the egg restrictions to imported eggs after local farmers argued they were at a competitive disadvantage.

King argues states can’t make such a ban, saying states can’t apply a law to imported products on the grounds that only the federal government can regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution.

His amendment was passed by voice vote just before midnight on Wednesday and shortly before the House Agriculture Committee approved the farm bill after a 13-hour markup.

But animal rights activists, besides being furious about the effect on hens, warn that the King amendment, as worded, could also affect local laws relating to worker rights and the environment.

“It’s hard to overstate how sweeping and far-reaching the King amendment is,” said Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society. “I think lawmakers on the committee had no benefit of preparation for the surprise offering.”

Pacelle said the amendment was poorly crafted and could have the effect of stopping states from regulating products sold only within those states.

The wording of the amendment forbids states to “impose a standard or condition on the production or manufacture of any agricultural product sold or offered for sale in interstate commerce” if “such production or manufacture occurs in another state.”

Pacelle said that the wording could be taken to mean that if eggs are produced in Iowa, then California cannot require California egg producers to use larger cages.

“This as written would nullify thousands of local laws,” he told The Hill.

The real effect of the amendment could be to blow up a carefully negotiated détente between the Humane Society and the main egg lobbying group — the United Egg Producers — that would have phased in larger cages over 18 years under federal law.

Last year, they agreed on a compromise bill, since sponsored by Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.),that would overturn the California egg law while setting up a federal standard.

That standalone bill faced a setback when Senate leadership decided not to consider it as a floor amendment to the farm bill.

Pacelle said there will be an attempt to add it to the House farm bill if it comes to the floor.

“The California law had the effect of bringing the United Egg Producers to the bargaining table,” he said.  

He said that UEP was not happy with the King effort since it undermines the compromise they have agreed to. UEP’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

The standalone egg bill was opposed by a coalition of farm lobbyists, including the American Farm Bureau, which worries it will create a precedent for other industries.

The National Pork Producers Council, meanwhile, gave King’s efforts a thumbs up, saying it will put a stop to state-level interference in interstate commerce that could eventually hobble the wider meat industry.

“It is kind of amazing that you have to have a law say that states can’t do this. We already have a Constitution that says that,” Pork Council spokesman Dave Warner said on Friday.  

He said his group did not take an official position on the amendment since it was filed late in the process. He confirmed that his group is leading the effort against the standalone egg bill and would “vigorously” fight any floor amendment to add it to the farm bill.

“Farmers know best how to take care of their animals,” Warner said.

The fate of the King amendment, like the rest of the farm bill, depends on whether House GOP leaders are willing to hold a floor vote on the legislation. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are not fans of the farm subsidy spending in the bill. With liberal Democrats opposing its food stamp cuts and the Tea Party opposed to its overall spending, it could be tough to pass.

Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group said that King’s amendment would likely not make it into law this year.

“It is really too early to tell what the future holds for the farm bill. And whether we will have a farm bill this year or not,” he said.  “I can’t imagine this provision surviving a conference with the Senate this year. But it could succeed if the Senate changes hands after the election.”

He said the King amendment could provoke a coalition of consumer groups, environmentalists and states’ rights advocates to kill the vulnerable farm bill.

Pacelle noted that when it comes to a farm bill conference, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is a co-sponsor of the Senate standalone egg bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.). He noted she has said she would try to work it into a farm bill during the negotiations.